Keeping it Real: 3D pioneer RealD celebrates ten years in movie theatres

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Technology

“To perfect the visual experience and to develop technology that creates visual ‘Wow’ in every cinema, on every screen around the world: That has been the philosophy from the beginning,” says chief executive officer Michael Lewis on the occasion of Film Journal International’s celebration of the past ten years at RealD. With 28,000 screens in 72 countries deployed, RealD is world-leading indeed. “Our goal has always been to deliver a great experience to our customers, to be a center for innovation and to deliver value to shareholders.”

Lewis says that initial philosophy remains “especially important today for the cinema business, with the added competition from diverse media channels. The movie experience needs to be superior to get people to leave their homes.” For the same reason, he adds, the anniversary is based on the first film that was released with RealD cinema technology. Celebrating with Disney’s Chicken Little rather than the actual founding date of RealD* makes good sense, as Lewis explains it: “The company was created to enhance the moviegoer’s experience, not to launch a technology. Without people being able to enjoy it, it’s just technology.”

Personally as well, the experience (including popcorn and soft drink) is important to Lewis. One film in particular, at the Ritz Theatre in Winter Haven, Florida, created a defining moment and led him “to where we are today: making the cinema experience more magical and lifelike around the world. Seeing Star Wars as a kid made me want to be in the movie business because it seemed so real and lifelike.”

It’s almost unreal to think that 38 years later, another Star Wars episode continues to define moviegoing and records alike. With somewhere around 70,000 opening-weekend screens in the North American release of The Force Awakens, RealD showings captured just under 40% of total shows, Lewis confirms. As part of the record-setting full year 2015, in fact, $15 billion of box-office gross was 3D-enabled, he adds, of which $7.7 billion was generated in 3D showings, with a RealD share of no less than $3 billion. Globally as well, eight of last year’s top ten movies were in 3D and together accounted for $8.8 billion of box office ($4.2 billion on account of RealD).

Not surprisingly, the RealD birthday cards, if you will, focus on films and fan favorites. Moviegoers are invited to enjoy “10 Years of Legends,” of “Awesome,” “Bah Humbug,” “Passion” and, of course, “Action.” Each one of the messages is represented by an instantly recognizable image from an equally recognizable film and/or franchise, listed here in the same order as the above experiences that they were chosen to represent: The Lord of the Rings, The LEGO Movie, The Polar Express, Star Wars and Transformers. “Our systems exist to make the content and experience richer and better,” Lewis elaborates. “3D artistry continues to grow with every film. As filmmakers push the boundaries of storytelling, so do the benefits of the platform.”

Such and similar marketing has been instrumental in the establishment of the RealD brand as well, Lewis concurs, and in highlighting the company’s innovations among customers, both within the industry and with moviegoers. “All elements are important to the success of a company. Marketing helped establish the RealD brand and products as a legitimate force in the cinema business. Marketing played a pivotal role in the programming and production of great 3D content.” In the process, the company actually moved away from being merely about that third dimension—as compelling as it is—to becoming about more encompassing “visual technology.” Enhancements include TrueImage, InteliLight, RealD XL and LUXE, even a gaming toolkit, and now the “Ultimate Screen.” “We continue to look at the entire technology chain, from capture to delivery, to innovate and perfect the visual experience.” For Lewis, this all happens “not only for filmmakers and content producers, but for consumers.”

The quest for perfection also involves shareholders, of course. After a mostly successful run on the stock exchange, RealD is looking to return to private ownership with Rizvi Traverse Management in a $550 million deal. “Going private will allow us the resources, the expertise and the time to achieve our mission,” Lewis explains. “Our goal was always to bring a great visual experience to as many people as possible.”

With over 28,000 screens globally, are there any people and places left? “We will continue to raise the experience on the existing platform, as well as continue to target key growth markets,” he assures. “There’s always room for growth when you have a great product and there are many markets that are still showing real opportunity, including China, Brazil and others.”

Looking at said opportunity, Lewis names “the times we live in” as the biggest for exhibition. “We have to make sure the cinema experience is superior to all other visual experiences in order to continue to entice the consumer to the cinema.” That represents our industry’s biggest challenge too, he finds. The one thing Lewis would like to change about the way the business works is to show “a greater focus on the quality of the visual experience.” With that, the future of moviegoing will remain bright, beyond another ten years. “Movies have always been social and we believe that will never change. If the content continues to be fresh, compelling well-told stories shown with the best technology, we believe it will be a thriving business well into the future.”

Given the opportunity, would Lewis do it all over again? “Absolutely. It’s been an exciting journey. We have been fortunate to bring a great experience to over 1.5 billion people and we are very proud of the contribution we have made to the industry. Being an innovative company, we are always looking forward. Regret serves no purpose,” he assures, adding that there have been none.

“Team is everything,” Lewis declares. “Teamwork allowed us to create the best 3D platform in the world. What gets us up in the morning is ensuring that the consumer’s visual experience is second to none and that filmmakers have the innovative technologies they need in order to tell their stories in new and exciting ways.”

* RealD was founded in 2003 and has offices in Beverly Hills, Calif.; Boulder, Colo.; London, Moscow, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.

RealD@10: The Ten Most Important Moments

2005: With a rich history of award-winning technology that includes being used by NASA to pilot the Mars Rover, RealD releases Chicken Little as the first film shown in RealD 3D on approximately 100 screens, introducing the world to digital 3D. “Launching our first 100 screens,” was the most exciting RealD moment for Michael Lewis, “and having our technology actually work, which it continues to do to this day.”

2007: RealD becomes the world’s largest 3D cinema platform with more than 1,000 RealD 3D-equipped screens.

2008: RealD introduces the XL Cinema System, the world’s brightest and most widely used 3D cinema projection technology.

2009: James Cameron’s Avatar is released on 5,000 screens, as had been promised by Michael Lewis, and becomes the highest-grossing film in history.

2010: RealD named “Most Innovative Company” for the second time by Fast Company magazine.

2013: RealD launches Precision White Screen technology.

2014: Gravity wins seven Academy Awards including Best Visual Effects and Best Director, solidifying 3D as a creative tool for bringing stories to life.

2014: China’s Wanda circuit installs its 1,000th RealD screen.

2016: RealD launches Ultimate Screen, “the future of screen technology.”

2016: RealD installs its 28,000th cinema system.